Imagine anonymity. Could you live with it?
Kevin “The Last Soulman” Jones wants no part of it. That’s why the reporter is driving down Lafayette, glancing at a CD delivered by Jones. It’s got a sticky note attached with a phone number. And if the reporter is worth his weight in Detroit hip-hop history, he’ll call that number. The CD is brand-new. It’s the music of a group called A.W.O.L. They’re a trio, or at least were. They’re also legends in this town, but they’re often unmentioned when great Detroit hip-hop crews are discussed.
They’re in danger of becoming anonymous. That doesn’t sit well with Jones.
He’s good at making unexpected arrivals. Showing up unannounced turned heads and gained A.W.O.L. a respectable degree of fame in hip-hop’s underground during their musical peak. That was seven years ago.
In the intervening years, a new crop of hip-hop fans has come of age. But few know the faces, voices or sounds of A.W.O.L.
Yet anyone old enough to finish the phrase “Sugar is sugar, salt is salt …” and provide the history behind it, can more than likely tell you about A.W.O.L. — Afrocentric Wicked Old-school Lyricists.
The late ’80s saw the emergence of a small circle of Detroit rap groups. Bombshell, Smiley, Awesome Dre, Kaos & Mystro, Detroit’s Most Wanted were among the city’s elite. Some of these crews had distinguishable styles and built decent reputations around town. But A.W.O.L.’s emergence screamed “Detroit!” like no other. The trio’s image, sound and demeanor had raw, genuine credibility. They embodied a side of Detroit without trying, similar to the way Run-D.M.C. embodied Hollis, Queens, so effortlessly.
A.W.O.L. enjoyed the respect every artist wants, albeit on an underground level. It was a mass admiration that had little to do with record sales, the kind reserved for artists whose fame is generated by the personalities they are born with, not the ones they or their A&R reps craft.
The trio, through a series of releases on strong independent labels, poised themselves for a shot at mainstream recognition. It never happened, although other things did. The A.W.O.L. story is part tragedy, part irony, part drama.
Now, while Detroit hip hop blows up across the world, courtesy of the most unlikely of artists, Eminem, A.W.O.L. struggles for respect. One member is dead, another is on the outs with the music industry that once hailed A.W.O.L. as Detroit’s groundbreaking hip-hop act.
A new album could spell their end — or a new beginning. Aptly, it’s called Back 2 Tha Future.
A crew possessed
For Jones and Marqui “Boogie Mack” Vaughn, football preceded hip hop. Both had early eyes set on careers in the sport. Jones was a linebacker for Henry Ford High School; Vaughn a tailback at Southfield High. But they didn’t meet until both showed up on the field at Joliet Junior College in Illinois. At Joliet, they ball together, and fall together.
“Dropped out together, flunked out together, whatever,” says Jones. “Came to the crib with the same little harebrain scheme.”
The scheme was hip hop.
Vaughn, talking via telephone from Las Vegas, where he currently lives, vividly remembers their introduction to the phenomenon called hip hop being Public Enemy. He recalls “ridin’ up through Chicago” with Jones, skipping class and playing P.E.’s debut album, Bum Rush The Show. One listen, and they were baptized by the blood of the boom-bap.
Upon their return to Detroit, Jones and Vaughn formed a rap group. In need of a DJ and producer, they talked to a friend, DJ Mystro (now Christian hip-hop producer Lord Maji). Mystro took them to see a fledgling producer, Bennie “DJ Homicide” Herron. Herron played some of his music, impressed them, and A.W.O.L. became a trio.
“Mystro told me that he had a DJ for us, but he wasn’t that good,” says Vaughn. “But the thing is, he hadn’t seen Ben in a couple of years. So he took me to see Ben, and Ben pulled out some tricks for him. Blew him away. I immediately was like, ‘Yeah, this is who I want.’ That was in ’89.”
“You Don’t Want None of This” was A.W.O.L.’s first single. They took it to WGPR-FM 107.5, where a respected on-air personality named Billy T played the song on his hip-hop show, “Billy T’s Basement Tapes.”
“That’s when we first knew we could do this,” Jones says. “When we were gettin’ love from that.”
Herron proved to be a genius at finessing popular recording methods. “None of This” samples “Funky Drummer,” a James Brown record used ad nauseam by some of the biggest hip-hop groups of the time. Instead of looping it once, however, as most producers did, Herron laid a reversed loop of the sample on top of the forward one. It made for a chaotic, mechanical melody that was unheard of in hip hop.
Bob Alman, an employee of Comcast Cable, directed the video. They shot it on the People Mover. Soulman and Boogie Mack spit rhymes about the grittier side of Detroit life. No fancy metaphors or Das Efx-style “riggedy-rauurrgghs.” Just hardcore, unsweetened tales of life skills learned on streets. For the chorus, Homicide added Public Enemy front man Chuck D’s shouting “’Cause the ‘D’ is for dangerous! You can come and get some of this!” The song became a local hip-hop classic.
The video became the first to be played on hot new cable call-in video show “The BOX” and BET’s “Rap City.” Their uniforms were jean “hook-ups,” that is, denim suits, with Dobbs and casual shoes. They rocked Coogi sweaters before they become stylish, years before the late Notorious B.I.G. would claim that “Every cutie with a booty want a Coogi.” But the icing on the cake was their Detroit attitude, which was confident and tough as nails.
“My man Koniva from D12 played their shit,” says Denaun Porter, also a member of Eminem’s crew D12. Porter produced the title track to A.W.O.L.’s new album, Back 2 Tha Future, and has been a fan since the day he saw the “You Don’t Want None of This” video. “It was the talk of the hood. I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? They from Detroit?’
“They was raw as hell. I was into that B-boy shit. We used to break dance and stuff. They were the first ones on that playa shit, some smack-you-in-the-face shit. They didn’t start nothin’, but they would finish it. But they seemed like they were cool with everybody, y’know?”
The same way Run-D.M.C. rejected the choreographed dance routines and tight, tassled suits that were popular for hip-hop groups in the early ’80s, A.W.O.L. rejected imitating East Coast and West Coast styles, opting for the authenticity of their hometown. Instead of black medallions and imagery, their music had all the gritty attitude of any Detroiter who’s ended a sentence by using the word “bitch” as a punctuation mark.
On the way up
Like fellow Detroit native Esham, A.W.O.L. built a national underground following between 1991 and 1996.
“People in Portland, Ore., still know about them,” says DJ Invisible, who tours with Xzibit. “They know about A.W.O.L. and Awesome Dre.”
A.W.O.L. parlayed its growing popularity into a deal with Ichiban Records, a now-defunct independent label once respected for its ability to promote underground artists. A.W.O.L. would release its most popular album, Detroit 4 Life, on Bootstrap/Rock-a-fella/I.N.D.I. The Source magazine, hip hop’s de facto bible, christened Detroit 4 Life with a three-and-a-half-mic rating (out of five).
Considered a coup for a Detroit rap group, the next step was for the rest of hip-hop America to recognize A.W.O.L.’s talent. A.W.O.L. would be the group that opened the door for Detroit hip hop, for artists such as Boss, a Detroiter who would be the first female artist to sign with Def Jam Records.
Having gained coverage in The Source and such other credible hip-hop journals as 4080 and Rap Sheet, A.W.O.L. became hometown hip-hop hopefuls. Kids like Porter who identified with A.W.O.L. wanted — almost needed — to see Detroit put on the hip-hop map.
But just as they were the first to make these achievements, they also became Detroit’s poster children for the music industry’s politics and bullshit.
According to Jones, a rapper named MC Essential A.W.O.L. released an album on Freeze records in the mid-’90s. His labelmate was a struggling MC named Jay-Z. Ichiban took exception to MC Essential using the word “A.W.O.L.” in his name.
“I guess his name wasn’t protected,” says Jones, “so Ichiban made him take his records off the shelf. I dissed him on a song called ‘Ben-Gay On My Nuts.’ Straight dissed him. Next thing I know, Jay-Z and them, almost immediately, came back with a label called Roc-a-fella. But they dropped the ‘k.’ I guess they spelled it different to get back at us. Next thing I know, they’re on boats, throwing up the Roc-a-fella sign in their videos.”
While traveling, performing and promoting their CD, Jones, Vaughn and Herron grew accustomed to lukewarm receptions in certain cities. They also grew accustomed to surprising people who were unaware that Detroit rhyme-slingers could hang with anyone in the country.
“In the early days, it was just us having a good time performing with an Ice Cube or a Rakim,” says Vaughn. “In a sense, we looked at it like a football team. ‘I respect you, but you here, and I’m fittin’ to put it down. When you come on after me, you gotta bring it.’ That’s how it went down every time. And believe me, anybody that came to a show where we performed with a national act, that national act gave their all that night. Am I lyin’?”
“Naw, you ain’t lyin’,” says Jones. “Especially ya boy J.T. Money. We was in Florida, and people didn’t know what to expect. He goes, ‘Y’all gon’ rock, man? Y’all gon’ rock?’ Y’know, in this Southern accent and shit. We was lookin’ at that nigga like he was crazy, like, ‘Who you talkin’ to, dog? You gon’ rock!?’ So we went out and put it down. Put the pressure on him.”
A.W.O.L. relished the mission. In their minds, each city presented an opportunity to turn fans on to new styles and trends. Fads develop throughout hip hop, and while A.W.O.L. felt responsible for starting some of them, they felt equally victimized by music industry culture vultures.
“Coogis and gators and minks, that was just regular D shit,” says Jones. “Nothing special. These other artists that’s not from here put all the dramatic bullshit to the shit. A average D nigga with a job at a plant is a fuckin’ ‘stunner.’”
Jones’ reference to “stunner” is aimed at the term popularized by New Orleans-based Cash Money Records co-CEO Bryan “Birdman” Williams.
“No disrespect,” says Vaughn, “but nothin’ pisses me off more than when a muhfucka tells me Eminem put Detroit on the map. Where the fuck you from? Whatcha been watchin’? Whatcha been lookin’ at?”
“Eminem, we always talk about it,” says Porter. “Em is a real MC, so he knew about groups like A.W.O.L. They gave Proof the inspiration to start Hip Hop Shop” — legendary Saturday afternoon open-mic sessions at the venue originally owned by clothing designer Maurice Malone. “They talked about Moet before Biggie. They were like their own industry.”
Blame it on marketing and promotion, or the indifference of a listening public that wouldn’t pop a bottle of Cristal and don a Coogi sweater for another five years.
Whatever the reason, Detroit 4 Life failed to make a ripple in the mainstream. After one EP (No Deal), and two more full-length albums (What It Be Like and Detroit), life began calling.
Vaughn decided to get a job, and moved to Alabama. Jones and Herron continued the musical struggle in Detroit. Vaughn left himself open to future projects, but fate had other plans.
Bennie Ellis Herron’s voice is noticeably absent these days. Just as the late Jam Master Jay is remembered as the backbone of Run-D.M.C., DJ Homicide is hailed as A.W.O.L.’s.
Like Jay, Homicide was the ironic victim of a 1996 homicide that his crew believes is more mysterious than his beat-making techniques.
“Two days before he passed, he called me,” says Vaughn. “I was down in Alabama, and he was comin’ down there. We were gon’ work on some tracks and do another A.W.O.L. album. And two days after that, B (Jones) called me and told me he was dead.”
Details surrounding Herron’s death are sketchy. (Four weeks after Metro Times made a formal request, the City of Detroit still hadn’t produced the police report into Herron’s death. It’s a public record.)
Jones and Vaughn refused to accept the Detroit Police Department’s conclusion that Herron was killed while attempting to break into a home.
“What they said he did didn’t sound right,” says Jones. “They said he was trying to break into a house. That don’t sound like Ben. He was into this music, like 24-7. You wanna know where Ben at? You can call his crib, because he’s in the basement.”
“Period,” adds Vaughn.
Jones contends that Herron’s acquaintances at the time were other DJs, folks like longtime Detroit fixture Gary Chandler, a close friend. Herron was in the process of divorcing his wife. But dangerous environments were not befitting, Jones says.
What is known is that on the night of May 17, 1996, Herron was shot multiple times at point-blank range. It happened at an apartment on Lahser near Eight Mile Road.
The homicide that took DJ Homicide was ruled justifiable.
“When I first heard it I was in a cloud,” says Jones. “I didn’t really sort through it until a year later.”
“Yeah, but when I first heard it, what did I tell you?” Vaughn interjects, talking to Jones. “Bullshit.”
Herron’s death sent A.W.O.L. into an emotional tailspin. Vaughn quit and returned to Alabama, and later moved to Vegas. Jones spent the next few years combating depression and coping with the loss. He rebounded, enrolled at Specs Howard School of Broadcasting to study radio and landed a job as on-air personality at WGRI, a gospel station in Grand Blanc.
“As a DJ on the radio, the main thing you have to be is conversational,” says Jones. “And I believe in God wholeheartedly, but I’m not that conversational when it comes to swimmin’ in the Good Book.”
In 2002, Jones and Vaughn had separate lives, one in Detroit, the other in Vegas. Vaughn had an urge to move on completely. But the music remains their passion, and it wouldn’t let them go. They regrouped, and A.W.O.L. decided to give it one more try, this time as a duo.
Respect the architect
Finding producers to replace what they had in Herron was a challenge, but Jones and Vaughn got it done.
“You guys never got a chance to hear my producing when Marq quit. I’m thinking, ‘Aw, it ain’t no thang. I remember how Ben used to do it,’” Jones says.
As it turns out, it was a thang.
“We were just jackin’ off money in the studio, comin’ out with the wack shit. And it made me realize A.W.O.L. is Marq, his input, Ben as the producer, and my input. All three of us were like a super-producing machine.”
Back 2 Tha Future attempts to update the vintage A.W.O.L. sound. Denaun Porter, I.V. Duncan, Cobb, L-Dub and Cotee contribute an amalgamation of tracks that collectively find an identity, while managing to accommodate A.W.O.L.’s stern, in-your-face sincerity.
Herron’s DJ duties have been assumed by O’Dell “P-Dog” Perry, a young battle DJ Vaughn met last year at a battle at Guitar Center.
“I think these guys are legends,” Perry says, “Man, I look up to these guys. They’ve been my favorite group since Detroit hip hop started. I will never replace Homicide, either. The stuff he did, I thought it was amazing. I would go to the record store and listen to what he did, and then go home and learn it for myself. I get pissed ’cause a lot of people disrespect A.W.O.L.”
Jones has not lost a step, and still carries a commanding presence on the mic. Vaughn, after a long layoff, shakes off the rust and regains the sense of passion and hunger he was known for back in the day.
They’ve released the new album independently, marketing it through their Web site, awoldirect.com, and two production companies, Black Bottom Music and Soul Pro Recordings.
But while the new album sits on record store shelves awaiting buyers, Vaughn’s still expresses displeasure with what he feels the music industry has stolen from them stylistically, and he has different plans for the immediate future.
“I’m done,” he says. “I’m bein’ real with you. I will not record another album for muthafuckas to steal my shit. I’m through with it.”
But what about Back 2 Tha Future?
“We’re gonna promote it,” Vaughn says.
His allegiance to the project seems sincere.
A.W.O.L. was awarded a lifetime achievement award at a recent fete honoring pioneering Detroit hip-hop groups. But the challenge of promoting a new album while living in different cities was in evidence — Jones’ performed alone. Vaughn was unable to make it to town for the show.
“Well, I think it’s gonna be to our advantage,” says Jones, choosing to focus on promotional opportunities, instead of barriers. “We’ve traveled too much, been through too much. I will leave to promote it first. Other markets embrace niggas just on the strength of (their music). And I love Detroit, but I gotta eat.”Khary Kimani Turner spits fire for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org